George Mitchell is in Israel/Palestine as the White House’s special envoy, in a visit described as “a final push to revive Middle East peace talks”. The focus remains on Israel’s so –called settlement ‘freeze’, with Mitchell reported as saying that there was still work to be done on the “Israeli-American dispute over construction in the West Bank”. Ahead of his meeting with Mitchell today, Netanyahu has confirmed that there will not be a “complete halt to building” in the settlements, telling a Knesset committee that “a reduction on building in Judea and Samaria will only be for a limited period”.
The ‘freeze’ is the latest warmed-up gimmick to be offered by the international community’s peace process’, though even by the standards of previous efforts such as the ‘Road Map’ and ‘Annapolis’, the settlement freeze is transparently lacking in seriousness. The Israeli government’s definition of a ‘freeze’ excludes: settlement activity in occupied East Jerusalem; 2,500 housing units already under construction; and, hundreds of new units just recently announced.
That the ‘freeze’ will last in the region of six to nine months is rather academic, given that it will make no difference to this year’s total settlement housing consolidation compared to previous years. As Ha’aretz pointed out, “instead of construction permits being given gradually throughout the year, the government intends to issue hundreds of permits within a few days, before the official announcement of the “freeze” is made”.
Even the PM’s spokesperson Mark Regev has found it hard to spin what Deputy PM Eli Yishai has called merely a “strategic delay”. The new construction in West Bank colonies ahead of the ‘freeze’ Regev argued was a case of doing something now to “actually make progress possible tomorrow”. MK Nissim Ze’ev, visiting a settlement outpost, felt no need to resort to such contortions, encouraging the settlers that there is “no one in the government who doesn’t want more and more construction throughout Judea and Samaria”, but that owing to tensions with the US, there are currently “limitations”.
In fact, last week saw Israeli settlement activity additional even to the announced building in the ‘blocs’. There was the publication of tenders for construction of almost 500 apartments in the East Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, while in the Jordan Valley, construction workers broke ground at the Maskiot colony in order to build residential homes. Finally, there was also a ceremony held in the ‘E-1’ area close to Jerusalem intended to mark the beginning of an eventual new colony (‘Mevaseret Adumim’), an event attended by settlers, ministers, and the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim (in whose municipality the land currently lies).
Netanyahu’s dealings with the US administration have come in for severe criticism from both his coalition allies (and the settler leadership), as well as from the likes of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. The former camp includes Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon, who when celebrating the 25th anniversary of the colony of Eli affirmed the Jews’ “unassailable right” to “settle anywhere, particularly here, the land of the Bible”.
Like-minded critics of the ‘freeze’ assert that what is really needed “is to apply pressure on the Palestinians to change” – i.e. by intensifying settlement activity. Given that “there is no reasonable vision of the future without a large and growing Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria”, the Palestinians “will simply have to adjust”.
MK Livni’s kind of criticism comes at the question from a different angle. Earlier this month, Livni claimed that the Netanyahu government was still to make the fundamental choice between “Jewish existence in every part of Israel” and “the existence of a Jewish democratic state”. Noting that the previous Kadima administration managed to build “in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs” without international controversy, Livni said that Netanyahu’s attempts to play games with building and freezing in order to “survive and please everyone” would not ultimately “preserve Israel’s interests”.
In a November 1995 op-ed in The New York Times, William Safire wrote about different approaches to a deal with the Palestinians being offered by Labor and Likud. Apparently, Labor’s plan meant Israel retaining “over one-fourth of the land [of the West Bank]”, while “Likud’s approach would hold 40 percent of the West Bank”. Safire noted that this was “a significant difference in degree, but not in principle, from Labor’s unspoken goal” [my emphasis].
This then is the Israeli consensus: Jews have at the very least the theoretical right to settle anywhere in the ‘Land of Israel’ – including all of the Occupied Territories – while the main colony ‘blocs’ in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will always remain under Israeli sovereignty. This latter policy is often mentioned in passing: Ha’aretz described the new settlement housing as being built in the blocs “Israel wants to keep under any peace agreement”, while Associated Press reported Netanyahu’s aides ‘playing down’ the new construction by “noting that almost all of the homes are in large settlement blocs that Israel expects to retain under any future peace deal”.
Israel’s intention of holding on to the settlement blocs goes right back to an architect of Oslo, former-PM Yitzhak Rabin. Not long before his assassination, and as Israel and the PA signed ‘Oslo II’, Rabin “stressed that the country’s final borders will include – in addition to a united Jerusalem – Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar, ‘and other settlements east of the Green Line’”(The Jerusalem Post, 19 Oct 1995).
Fast forward to 2009, and the echoes of Rabin’s consensus can be heard in Netanyahu’s ‘economic peace’: “The decision to build in Maskiot indicates that Netanyahu envisions a long-term civilian presence there [in the Jordan Valley], and not only a military one. And this is consistent with what Rabin said: ‘The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term’”.
The Israeli consensus then – even before the bartering and bickering over the freeze and unauthorised ‘outposts’ – is rejectionist: no Palestinian state on the ’67 borders, with the most important, strategic land of the West Bank confiscated on the grounds that the colonisation process is too advanced to be reversed. As this becomes increasingly difficult to conceal, it is to be expected that Israel will resort to such distractions as demanding Palestinian recognition of its ‘right to exist’ as a Jewish state.
A little over two months after ‘Oslo II’ had been signed, it was already apparent that Israel intended to “consolidate” West Bank settlements into blocs that were “being devised for easy annexation”. In 1995, an article in Israeli magazine Challenge looked at the settlement blocs declared to be non-negotiable by Rabin, and accurately predicted that the West Bank would become “a veritable Swiss cheese of isolated Palestinian population centres surrounded by Israeli settlements and settlement roads”. Israeli ‘redeployment’ masquerading as a “peace plan” is, in fact, a “settlement plan”. Nothing has substantially changed, including the US and international community’s mealy-mouthed ‘concern’ and complicity.